The first round of the playoffs didn’t turn out to be the cakewalk many had envisioned for the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. Both did what the needed to and because if it, we’ll get to see the first Battle of Alberta since 1991. It should be a blast but when it comes to the Oilers, nothing is of greater importance than Jay Woodcroft figuring out how to deploy his forwards in this series.
Riding on the coattails of Connor McDavid over the final seven periods of play was good enough to get past the Los Angeles Kings but that approach will not work against their provincial rival. The Flames can throw three lines over the boards that, on most nights, can hold their own. Edmonton used a similar approach down the stretch during the regular season but it went out the window during the first round.
While going to the duo of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl late in the Kings series was necessary and ultimately played a large part in them coming out on top, it would be rather difficult to go down a similar path against Calgary. Problem being, Draisaitl is battling an injury and his usual line with Zach Hyman and Kailer Yamamoto was downright awful against Los Angeles.
Those struggles led to Woodcroft blowing up his rotation and though we will likely see some of that continue against the Flames, a return to a semblance of normalcy has to be priority one for the Oilers. One would think McDavid and Draisaitl are on separate lines to start, as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ryan McLeod could be used as second and third line centres but it would be a challenge.
As things currently sit, McDavid, Draisaitl, Evander Kane, Zach Hyman, Nugent-Hopkins, Kailer Yamamoto, McLeod, Derek Ryan and Josh Archibald are being used in the top nine. The trio of Warren Foegele, Zack Kassian and Jesse Puljujarvi has been used sparingly or not at all. Though they have done a good job of using Kassian in a role best suited for his skill-set, the same can’t be said for the other two.
Though a good chunk of this fan base doesn’t want to hear it, if healthy, Puljujarvi must be used inside the top nine and depending on the setup of the lines, is best suited in a top six role. There will be those screaming from the trees about his lack of scoring but go take a look at the Oilers’ playoff point leaders and you will find exactly three forwards who produced against Los Angeles.
Despite his struggles to put pucks in the net, Puljujarvi is among this team’s best defensive forwards and that in itself is reason enough for him to elevated back into his usual role. Be it with Draisaitl and Hyman on the second line, playing alongside McDavid and Kane or in supporting one of Nugent-Hopkins or McLeod, the Oilers can ill-afford to cast the talented Finn aside in series like this.
As for Foegele, he wasn’t good in first five games against Los Angeles and ended up being a healthy scratch for the final two games. His spot in the lineup has essentially been given to Archibald and if that continues, it will come back to bite Edmonton. However, if this coaching staff so desperately wants to keep Archibald in the lineup, there is a simple solution…dress twelve forwards.
The benefit in having a player like Ryan on his roster, Woodcroft has a guy who can easily switch from the wing to centre and be used anywhere inside the bottom six. The Flames tend to run a fourth line with Milan Lucic, Trevor Lewis and another body. Edmonton could easily counter with Kassian and Archibald, which allows for Foegele to get back in and control the ice-time of their support guys.
Sorry but if this team honestly believes playing the likes of Archibald thirteen minutes a night against a team like Calgary is a good idea, the Oilers are already starting this series with a hand tied behind their backs. Edmonton’s top forwards are going to play a lot, meaning the guys on the fourth line will see limited minutes and the right players need to be in those spots.
Darryl Sutter is going to throw a steady diet of the Johnny Gadreau, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane, Mikael Baklund, Blake Coleman lines at Edmonton, mixing in the trio of Dillon Dube, Calle Jarnkrok and Tyler Toffoli a fair bit as well. It won’t be easy but if Woodcroft deploys his players in a way that makes sense, they should be able to hold their own against this group.
At the end of the day, that’s all anyone can ask for. Heading into this series, the Calgary Flames are considered the favourite but the Edmonton Oilers are capable of giving them all they can handle and pulling off an upset. With that said, there is little to no chance of that taking place without Jay Woodcroft going back to the approach that made this team successful during the regular season.